Sony A350 DSLR reviewed

We review the Sony A350 DSLR. This offering from Sony’s Alpha series of DSLRs is a mid-range camera with a 14.2 megapixel sensor and perhaps the best Live View system around.

“It’s the most effective implementation of Live View we’ve seen to date, making the A350 almost as easy to use as digital compact”

The Sony A350 is the first of three new DSLRs sharing a similar body-design and breaks away from the Konica Minolta-inspired A100 and A700 models,. A new entry-level 10-megapixel A200 replaces the Sony A100, while the third model, the A300, is essentially a pared-down A350 using the A200 model’s 10-megapixel sensor.

The A350 is Sony’s first mid-range DSLR and boasts a 14.2-megapixel resolution CCD, an improved anti-shake system and a new Live View mode with a handy flip-out 2.7-inch LCD.

Like the lower resolution Sony A300, Live View in the Sony A350 comes courtesy of a secondary imaging CCD in the viewfinder. Unlike rivals that use the main imaging sensor to provide Live View, the video system in the viewfinder allows the A350 to perform essentially like a normal DSLR.

This means the Sony A350 has no need of the sluggish contrast detection AF systems of rivals – hence the Quick AF Live View moniker – relying instead on the much faster, viewfinder-based auto-focus operation. It also means there’s no confusing double mirror slap.

Point of view

It’s the most effective implementation of Live View we’ve seen to date, making the A350 almost as easy to use as digital compact. While the fold-out 2.7-inch screen isn’t as large as some, when flipped-up and the camera carefully cradled in the left hand we found ourselves hardly using the optical viewfinder.

As well as accurate preview of white-balance and exposure, an additional histogram control is useful, though the metering system normally provides accurate exposure even in tricky lighting. Taking advantage of the high-resolution, 14-milion pixel sensor, there’s also a new so-called Smart Converter feature that allows you to zoom to 1.4x and 2x magnification regardless of the lens. For many it will be a bit of a gimmick as the simple in-camera cropping tool only works with JPEG images.

The A350’s body is well made but rather deep when compared with rivals and the optical viewfinder sits behind the LCD, making its a little uncomfortable to use. Even for a APS-C format DSLR the viewfinder image is small. And in turn this leads to a somewhat substantially cropped view using the LCD.

A proximity sensor beneath the eyepiece automatically initiates metering and auto-focus, so we’ve no real concerns with powering up or shot-to-shot times. But set to continuous shooting the A350 falls behind the bulk of rival offerings. Using the optical viewfinder and fitted with a high-speed CompactFlash card the A350 maintained the claimed 2.5fps, firing off unlimited Standard and Fine JPEGs or just six RAW files in total. Using the A350 in Live View mode, however, the burst rate dropped to a sluggish 2fps.

Just as other entry level and mid-range DSLRs drop the top-plate LCD in favour of the rear screen as a data panel so too does the A350. But this makes a lote more sense, usability wise, given the A350’s leaning towards Live View as the principal mode of operation. The camera’s controls, are for the most part, well laid out, though there’s no aft-selector dial. Instead, and a wasted opportunity, a largely unused button occupies the space.

Like earlier Alpha models, the D (Dynamic)-Range Optimiser function helps retain highlight detail while shadow and some mid-tone areas are lightened. The Standard setting reduces contrast across the whole image, albeit only subtly though the more impressive Advanced option balances the subject and background.

It works well for day-to-day shooting but it’s particularly useful with backlit subjects, and when used in conjunction with the tiny built-in flash. Only JPEGs are affected. Raw files are tagged with the data, so images shown during playback may not seem like they’ve been altered until they’ve been developed in the supplied software. If you use Photoshop for Raw conversion, for example, you won’t benefit from the DRO feature.

Lab Rat

In the labs the Sony A350 performs well, the 14.2-megapixel sensor is capable of resolving high levels of detail, but you’ll need a high-performance lens to benefit and this diminishes with higher sensitivities. High ISO noise reduction up to the maximum ISO3200 tends to smear away not only the coloured blotches and speckles, leading to images with not just low noise, but low detail too.

Colour accuracy is good, especially at the lower ISO settings, but is not quite up to the standards set by the earlier A100. And, like many rivals, struggles still with mixed and indoor lighting.  It all adds up to a bit of mixed bag.

One definite area of improvement over earlier offerings is the Super SteadyShot anti-shake system, with a claimed 2.5-3.5 stops compensation. With care, we were able to drop the shutter speed down as low as 1/15th sec at the longer end of a Carl Zeiss 16-80mm (24-120mm equivalent) zoom and still get acceptably sharp results.

While the unique Live Mode and wider than average zoom range of the Sony 18-70mm kit lens are likely to tempt novices, the 14.2-megapixel resolution CCD makes the A350 a pricey proposition. At the same time, enthusiasts looking to take full advantage of the A350’s image size will need to invest in a top-quality lens. Sony’s optics are good but many are much dearer than those from the market leaders Canon and Nikon. The Carl Zeiss 16-80mm, for example, will push the price close to £1000. With a poor optical viewfinder, low continuous shooting rates and only average high ISO performance, the A350 isn’t likely to be top of the list for photography buffs.

Sony A350 DSLR Info

Typical price: Alpha DSLR-A350 body c/w Sony DT 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 macro standard kit zoom £534 (£455 ex VAT) or c/w additional Sony DT 55-200mm f/4-5.6 double lens kit £699 (£595 ex VAT).

Pros:
Most effective Live View system to-date
Body integral anti-shake
Good colour rendition
Good build

Cons:
Noise reduction leads to smearing at ISO1600 and above
Tardy continuous shooting
Poor viewfinder ergonomics
Pricey lenses & accessories

Verdict: While the Sony A350 has an entirely usable Live View mode when compared to rival offerings, the high price and mixed performance is difficult to ignore.

Rating:

More info: Sony A350 DSLR Support Website

Sony Alpha A350 fold out LCD screen Such was the quality of Live View on the fold-out LCD of the Sony A350 that we found ourselves rarely using the optical viewfinder of this nifty little camera.

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